In Stephen Marche’s debut novel, Raymond and Hannah, falling in love is a polished routine, comprised of a series of requisite moments. The titular couple meets, undresses, giggles, slips in some baby talk, and before long lets loose the “I love you”—allin one week. Sex is so good (“Scream, scream. Scream”) that it requires scholarly explanations and tips like “cunnilingus should be added to the repertoire” and “attention to detail [is] key.”
The affair is glib and systematic, propelled by Raymond’s hyper-academic understanding of romance. A Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto, he studies Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, a sprawling 17th-century treatise on love and its “symptoms,” “cause,” and “cure.” Raymond holds his relationship to purely literary standards as he sits for days in his library cubicle, writing about “irrelevant subjects for irrelevant readers. Blah.” A fine student, he dutifully fulfills Burton’s definition of proper passion—”always good, amiable, fair, gracious, and pleasant.”
First novels about young, giddy couples, like Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus or Amis’s The Rachel Papers, tend to flaunt their neurotic details—pimples, misfired jokes, spaz attacks—but Marche’s love story is so aware it’s a love story that cavalier notes on the sides of each page prod the process along. “A scene.” “Another scene.” “In the dark, in the garden.” “Conversation over pita, hummus, tabbouleh and fried tomato.” With gaping margins, the book eases forward in one fluid rush. Hannah and Raymond have no family, few friends, and a limitless capacity for reading and being awesome in bed.
When Hannah moves to Jerusalem so she can study the Torah and “grow Jewishly,” Raymond comfortably conducts the affair from a library research computer, applying his honed skills for rehashing old material and sending e-mails with subject headings like “re: re: re: re: Funny experience.” Filled with excess verbiage, their relationship, a “memory with Internet words mixed in,” narrows into an extended conversation about what they are studying (the Torah and Burton both prove equally hypocritical and life defining). They argue over their self-proclaimed “holy” texts, trying to find—with typical academic flair—some sort of “hemi-demi-semi-reconciliation.”